Gelato, Italian Frozen Custard

Gelato | Italian Frozen Custard

With brightly colored, fresh fruits and an assortment of mix-ins like macadamia nuts or cocoa, gelato is an oasis on a stifling, summer day. Where the American equivalent, ice cream or custard, is seen as an indulgence or guilty pleasure, gelato is not only natural but nutritious.

If you visit any of Italy’s major cities in the summertime—and in spring and fall, for that matter—invariably you’ll see large crowds of tourists and locals alike overflowing onto the streets in front of many of the gelaterie (ice cream shops, plural form). Sometimes these places are spacious, elegantly designed shops, sometimes they are modest, unremarkable little places, but all that matters is that the gorgeous, colorful display of cool, refreshing gelati are artigianali—that is, made on site. Often there are dozens of flavors to choose from, but with the hot and weary multitudes pressing against you, you’d better be ready when it’s your turn. Once you’ve somehow managed to choose amongst the luscious-looking lineup, then, ice cream in hand, you must make your way through the crowd and onto the street to join the wandering tribes of gelato eaters. Sitting outside on some ancient steps in Rome, or drifting along the cobblestone streets in the moonlight in a gelato-induced delirium is an enchanting experience you’ll never forget.

But, in Italy, gelato has always been considered a food—a natural, nutritious food, not just an indulgence or guilty pleasure. Made the artisanal way—using real eggs, whole fresh milk, and, depending on the flavor, various fruits and nuts—Italian gelato is high in proteins, lipids, vitamins E and B2, and calcium and phosphor. It has long been recommended for children and the elderly because it is a delicious, extremely digestible way to get these important nutrients. Usually, gelato artigianale contains no artificial flavors, powdered milk, emulsifying addictives, colorants or extracts, and relatively little sugar is added, especially in fruit-based gelati. In Italy, the portions have always been, and remain, modest; just a small or medium-size cone or coppetta is remarkably satisfying—even for kids. Made with only pure, fresh ingredients, gelato artigianale is filling, but not bloating. Probably because the flavors are so intense and satisfying, authentic homemade gelato doesn’t create the craving to eat more than just a single portion, which is usually about 6-8 ounces.

Like most culinary treasures, gelato has a long and fascinating history. In ancient pastoral communities, snow was mixed with sheep or goats’ milk and honey to create a refreshing drink. One of the ancestral forms of gelato was sorbetto—a word derived from the Arab “sherbeth,” or “cool beverage”—which was made from a mixture of snow, fruit juices and honey. It’s believed that 5000 years ago many civilizations knew how to preserve snow even through the hottest months of the year. In China and India, snow was transported from the highest mountains to the valleys, where it was buried deep in the ground and covered with straw to keep it cool. In Rome, the snow from Mount Terminillo was brought daily to the wealthy families to enjoy refreshing beverages in the summer months. In the early Middle Ages in Sicily, when the Arab civilization was thriving, the noble courts were notoriously staffed with the finest chefs; they discovered that the snow from Mount Etna married perfectly with the intense flavors of Sicily’s lemons, oranges and mandarins—and the tradition has endured for centuries. Granita, a very common form of gelato in Sicily, consists of crushed ice topped with the syrupy juices made from fruit, or else mint leaves.

During the Renaissance, when elaborate forms of patisserie and sorbetti were first combined, the archetype of gelato was invented. In the French palace of Versailles, the Florentine Caterina de’ Medici, married to the king of France, brought the most talented cooks from Tuscany for new ideas and innovative techniques. The inventions of some of those chefs, who were celebrated as geniuses in Paris, were bold attempts to combine the sweet and creamy with the cool and icy. The first semifreddi and torte gelato (ice cold desserts and pies), and also a kind of cold creamy zabaglione (a light custard-like dessert) and fruit sorbetti were served with great success in the aristocratic circles of the time. These first forms of gelato spread quickly throughout Europe. In the late 18th century, the first U.S. gelateria was opened in New York by Giovanni Bosio, a native of Genova. His gelato shop immediately gained popularity, and eventually, in the years to come, ice cream was industrially produced. Today, Americans are the largest consumers of ice cream in the world—but Italian gelato artigianale remains something entirely unique.

To make a great gelato, a gelataio (the ice-cream maker) always uses the highest quality produce—from the dark chocolate and cacao powder to the milk, eggs and fruit—finding the perfect balance of ingredients to create the desired texture, sweetness and color for each flavor. The ingredients are blended in a special refrigerating and mixing machine, called a mantecatrice, which incorporates just the right amount of air while stirring. Ideally, the resulting gelato attains a soft consistency and also just the right temperature—cold, but not too cold. The basic ingredients are fresh whole milk, fresh eggs, and sugar. To this base, other ingredients will be added—such as cacao, dark chocolate, and cacao butter for cioccolato; or whole hazelnuts and homemade hazelnut paste for nocciola. Gelato di frutta, which refers to the huge variety of fruit-based gelati, are prepared with the juice and pulp of fresh fruit, usually without milk. This type of gelato is very close to sorbetto, and is very low in calories.

A great gelato has the unmistakably fresh taste of the pure, genuine ingredients it’s made with—whether it’s chocolate, nuts, coffee, or fruit; and it achieves that wonderful paradox: creamy and rich, yet remarkably light. Italians can immediately taste the difference between a real gelato artigianale and the industrial versions that are sometimes sold in the gelaterie—the latter tend to have twice as much air, yet don’t taste nearly as light.

The thousands of gelaterie artigianali found all over Italy follow more or less the same methods, though each one jealously protects their own secrets for making a great tasting gelato with its own unique consistency. Italian gelato is in general much less caloric than the ice cream sold in other places in the world—and healthier. Praised by nutritionists, genuine gelato is known to help with digestion and the assimilation of fats; so, when in Italy, you can end the most sumptuous meal with a small gelato and feel positively virtuous.

We have the great good fortune to live on the same block as the oldest gelateria in Bologna—Gelateria Pino on Via Castiglione—which has made gelati al naturale for generations of Bolognese. The maestro gelataio, Giuseppe Pavan, is a radiantly handsome man, who has worked as an ice-cream maker since the early 60s. Even after five decades, he still exudes a passion and joy for his work.

According to him, very little has changed in gelato production since he first began; in fact, in the Gelateria Pino, they are still using the very same machines they began with over 50 years ago. Giuseppe still goes to the market twice a week to personally choose the fruit for his gelati. He still purchases hazelnuts from the Langhe, an area in Piemonte, and cocoa and chocolate from Belgium. He also pays particular attention to the choice of milk and eggs—as well as for every other ingredient he uses. A calm and serenity reign in the underground space below the ice cream shop where he and his wife Maria prepare these delicacies—twenty of them, with some seasonal changes—made with love and dedication every day of the year.

Learn how to make your own gelato at home. Recipe: Crema Gelato